Historical Analysis of the Movie Gladiator

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I would like to start off by saying that I do love this movie, but when it comes to history it’s about as accurate as an episode of Game of Thrones. In the story of Gladiator, the Roman general Maximus is betrayed by the evil Emperor Commodus. His family is murdered, and he becomes a slave, and then sold off to become a gladiator. It’s a great story of revenge but the character of Maximus is entirely made up. Although he’s very well written, Maximus is more of a plot device to allow the audience to experience the greatest aspects of Roman life.

The setting of the movie takes place in 180 AD the peak of the golden age of Rome. I governed the lives of almost a quarter of the world’s population and its mighty empire stretches from the forests of northern England to the deserts and great cities of Egypt and the middle east. For the most part there is peace and prosperity throughout the empire Rome is at the extent of its power and influence. It has been 63 years since the empire’s last territorial expansion. Its armies now focus solely on defending its borders from barbarian invaders. The emperor Marcus Aurelius has been fighting a series of bloody wars against the Germanic tribes along the river Danube. Much beloved by his people he generally considered today as one of the last great Roman emperors. His leadership was definitely tested in these conflicts. This is because these weren’t the same barbarians Rome had successfully defeated in the past. By now they were highly organized and equally ferocious. However, Marcus Aurelius was able to rise up to the challenge during the Marcomannic Wars.

The movie begins on what was the final battle of these long wars. The film does a great job of authentically portraying the Roman war machine. In open battle the Romans were unstoppable. Using the latest technology of ballistae and onagers, they were able to crush anyone on the field. It was through these very tactics that allowed the Romans to emerge victorious time and time again. When the battle is over, Marcus Aurelius summons his son Commodus to the front. This is the point in which the movie detours from actual history. Marcus Aurelius tells Commodus that he will not be emperor, but instead his powers will be passed to Maximus until the senate is ready to rule. Although this is an important scene and provides the necessary catalyst for the rest of the movie, in reality there was never any question as to whether Commodus would be emperor. In fact it was Marcus Aurelius who reinstated the succession by male heir policy that all his predecessors had abandoned. To prepare Commodus, Marcus Aurelius brought on his campaigns against the barbarians at a young age in order to school him on the lessons of war and ruling the people for much of his childhood. At the age of 15 Commodus became the joint emperor with his father. So when the real Marcus Aurelius died in 180AD, Commodus became sole emperor at the age of 19. Despite everything his father had prepared him for, Commodus had no interest in pursuing his father’s vision for Rome. In that same year he brought the campaigns along the Danube to an abrupt halt and negotiated a weak peace treaty with the barbarian tribes. He returned to Rome and organized a triumph in his own honor. His primary concern from then on was to enjoy himself as much as possible and leave the running of the government to more interested people.

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The gladiatorial games were the most popular event in the Roman world. They’re probably the perfect representation of Roman values. The courage to face mortal combat, the contempt for death, and the courage it takes to meet it honorably in the end. If a gladiator lost and was sentenced to die, it was up to him to show the crowd how to die like a Roman. It can’t be stated enough how seriously Romans took these games and the amount of preparation that went into their execution. Gladiator is one of the few examples that actually tones down how ridiculous these games would get. The Colosseum, the largest amphitheater in the world, was able to seat 50,000 people and host a variety of spectacles such as gladiatorial bouts, animal hunts, reenactments of famous battles, and they would flood the arena and have actual sea battles. Sometimes this would all be in the same week. Since gladiators were favored amongst all other forms of entertainment, they were also prepared for that same level of professionalism.

In the movie, the gladiators are randomly picked slaves with no real purpose other than to die in the arena and with very little care provided in their training and selection. The games themselves are completely chaotic where gladiators are thrown into the arena and the fight simply becomes a free for all. In reality the Romans would have viewed the games in the movie as very unsportsmanlike. Slaves who were chosen to become gladiators were always in perfect physical condition. They would then undergo months of rigorous training to hone their fighting skills and when they weren’t training, they were well fed and pampered by Roman baths and massages. A good comparison of how a gladiator was picked and cared for is the same way racehorses are treated today. A lot of money went into these games, so the Romans wanted to put on the best possible show. In the film each gladiator seems to wear randomly selected armor and they all look completely different from one another. In reality the armor was chosen to fit a gladiator’s type and fighting style. Romans would have their favorite types and loved to see how their gladiators faired against another. They would usually pit someone who was agile and quick against someone who was heavy and strong. The Romans loved to debate over which attribute was more important. But of all Romans, there was no one more obsessed with the games than Commodus.

In Gladiator, Commodus is performed perfectly by Joaquin Phoenix, who is my favorite character in the entire film. Even though it’s clear that the emperor is a villain, we see a truly tragic figure with deep ties to a lack of relationship with his father. It’s clear that Markus Aurelius has been preparing Commodus to become emperor. He spent most of his life constantly being criticized by his father without an ounce of affection. Unable to meet his father’s expectations, it comes as no surprise when he feels bitterness towards Maximus. He recognizes the love that Markus Aurelius despite never having received any of it himself. So when Markus Aurelius declares Maximus to be the protector of Rome, It is not only a betrayal to Commodus but admitted to the entire known world that Markus Aurelius doesn’t value or even love his son. After murdering Markus Aurelius, Commodus prepares a series of highly expensive games in his father’s honor.

The real Commodus was not sympathetic at all. The great games he hosted served no purpose other than to serve his own indulgence. He couldn’t care about anything else especially ruling the empire. He was so obsessed with gladiators that he wanted to be one and went into the arena to fight them. Just like in the movie these fights would be rigged. He would be outfitted with the best weapons and armor that money could buy and the man he faced would be handicapped and armed with a dull blade. These unhonorable fights caused a decline in his popularity with the Roman people. When Commodus wasn’t playing gladiator or throwing epic parties, he also had countless people assassinated. Whether it be to seize their property or for political reasons, there was no end to it. Mostly it just happened at random even to people close to him. Eventually he met his demise because he left a list of people he was going to have killed just lying around in his villa. It was his mistress who found it and saw her name at the top. She showed it to the other people also on it and together they hatched a plot to kill Commodus. In the movie Commodus dies in a pretty dignified way. What really happened was that his mistress and the other conspirators convinced Commodus’s gladiatorial trainer to strangle him in his bath. I think we can all agree that this was a necessary change for the movie.

However, its ending does not truly reflect the consequences of Commodus’s rule. When Maximus dies, we get a general feeling that evil has been defeated and Rome can be saved but in reality, the damage had already been done. Following almost immediately after Commodus’s death, Rome would be hit by years of civil war by pretenders fighting for the throne. In the long run, Commodus’s reign ended Rome’s golden age and his death marked the beginning of the end of Rome itself

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